India’s moon catcher: Portrait of a feminist activist

Jagmati Sangwan is helping to organise the fight against “honour” killings and other crimes against women in India.

Jagmati Sangwan - Please do not use
Jagmati Sangwan has a long history of organising women into collectives [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

It was a winter’s afternoon in 1980 when a women’s volleyball match between two Indian teams was delayed by an hour.

The team from Tamil Nadu, a state in the south of India, was on the court. But the team from Haryana, a north Indian state, had locked themselves inside their dressing room.

The officials were fuming and one was allegedly heard to say: “Instead of being grateful that they have got a platform to play, these girls are acting smart.”

Inside the dressing room, intense negotiations were taking place.

Since Jagmati Sangwan of the Haryana team had returned from Mexico and South Korea, where she had played volleyball against women’s teams from those countries, the attitudes of the Indian sporting authorities towards women’s sport had jarred with her.

That day, she and her five fellow team-mates refused to go out onto the court until they had received some assurances. They had demands: better-quality kit, shoes and balls; improved training facilities; and an increased diet allowance. What they wanted, essentially, was equality with the men’s teams.

The officials eventually conceded and assured the team that their demands would be met as soon as the tournament they were playing in was over.

Sangwan’s team hit the court and won. She was 20 years old then.

Battle cries

In the 35 years since, one thing has remained consistent in Sangwan’s life: her belief in collective resistance.

The 55-year-old is now the vice president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, an independent, left-leaning organisation dedicated to achieving democracy and equality. In India, if anyone is responsible for putting the issue of “honour” crimes on the national and international agenda, it is Sangwan.

The day I met her, she had just returned to work a few days after her daughter had suffered post-delivery complications.

We are sitting in her office in Shadi Khampur, a working-class district of Delhi.

“Just imagine,” she says. “Thirty years back, I faced the same lack of mother and child care when my daughter was born. And now, she is facing the same. Nothing has changed really.”

She speaks softly, the constant movement of her hands helping to articulate every point she makes.

But anyone who has ever attended a rally with her and heard her shout slogans such as “Patriarchy is a bluff. This is the time to smash it to dust” as though it were a battle cry, has witnessed the transformation of that soft voice.

Jagmati Sangwan was allowed to attend school like her male siblings. But the education they received was far from equal [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera] 
Jagmati Sangwan was allowed to attend school like her male siblings. But the education they received was far from equal [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera] 

‘Honour’ killings

A conservative estimate by experts suggests that there are at least 1,000 honour killings in India every year. Many of those happen in Haryana, the country’s third most prosperous state, according to a study by Crisil, and the one from which Sangwan comes.

It is also one of the five Indian states and territories with the worst sex ratio – at 879 females for every 1,000 males – and clocks 67 cases of crime against women daily, according to a conservative government estimate.

The largely agricultural state borders the national capital, Delhi, and has greatly benefited from both India’s White Revolution, which started in 1970 and saw the country become the world’s largest milk producer by 1998, and its Green Revolution, which started in the 1960s with the aim of increasing agricultural yields. Now, a booming real estate industry and service sector are also being kind to the state.

At 24 percent of the population, the largest caste in Haryana is the Jats, traditional pastoralists who became feudal landlords and have steered an identity politics movement through the Khap Panchayats, or clan councils. The Khap Panchayats largely issue diktats to the community on what they should eat and wear, who young people should marry and – crucially – on how women should behave. Violating their orders can sometimes be deadly.

The second-largest group in Haryana are the Dalits, the caste traditionally considered the least privileged and were formerly referred to as the ‘untouchables’. It is a combination that can make for a particularly oppressive social hierarchy.

In 1995, 17 years before Indians took to the streets in large numbers to express their anger over the gang rape of a 23-year-old student on December 16, 2012, 1,000 women had brought the Sessions Court in the Jind district of Haryana to a halt in protest at one of its judgments.

After hearing a case about the rape of a 12-year-old, the court found the girl’s complaint false because, according to medical reports, she was found to be “habitual of sex”.

A few months before, the girl’s brother had married a girl from his village against the diktat of the clan council, which had ordered all members of the clan not to marry somebody from the same village. As punishment, the council ruled that the boy’s 12-year-old sister be raped.

Sangwan breaks it down: “Like in any patriarchal society, a woman is a commodity. If a woman transgresses, violates norms, asserts unconventional demands, firstly, it is assumed that it is not at her behest and free will and, secondly, it is seen as an offence to the honour of the family, clan, religion, depending on which one the ‘offended’ pick up. It is this notion of honour that the Khap Panchayats operate upon.”

Jagmati Sangwan first experimented with creating a collective when she was 16 and got together with a group of girls from her village who were keen on receiving further education [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera] 
Jagmati Sangwan first experimented with creating a collective when she was 16 and got together with a group of girls from her village who were keen on receiving further education [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera] 

It was the first of many protests Sangwan would arrange against the clan councils.

She recalls how the court complex was full of men supporting the clan council on one side and women, some of whom were married to those same men, protesting on the other.

“It was a difficult protest to pull off because these women had taken on the same men who, as husbands, would have thrown them out of the houses in the evening,” she says.

“But I have learned one thing: that the weak and vulnerable often understand the meaning of struggle and the need to fight for their rights better and quicker than the privileged. The women felt that they had something at stake in the treatment the court meted out to that young, innocent girl and that is what we channelised.”

The court did not budge, but Sangwan believes the women’s act of resistance left a mark nevertheless.

A lesson in sexism
Sangwan grew up in Janta Bhutan village in the Sonipat district of Haryana, one of eight siblings in a family of

Like her male siblings, Sangwan was allowed to attend school. But there were differences in what the girls and boys were taught. She “did not even learn science in school”, she says.

Then, once the girls reached the age of 15, their schooling just stopped.

It was at school that Sangwan encountered her first case of “honour” killing. A 13-year-old classmate was killed for “talking too much with boys”.

When Sangwan was 16, she had her first experience of creating a collective, getting together with a group of girls from her village who wanted to continue their education. 
“We would have never been allowed to travel to a college, an hour away in another town,” she says, explaining how, as a group, they were able to persuade their parents to let them.

Every morning they would board the bus for the hour’s drive to Gohana. And every day, they would run the gauntlet of name-calling, shaming and character assassination directed at females who dared to be in public spaces.

“You must have seen the video of those girls thrashing boys,” she says, referring to a video of two young women beating two men who had allegedly harassed them that went viral.

“We did that on a daily basis. There was no other way to deal with the ‘Eve teasing’. And mostly, we would be the only women travellers in those buses,” she recalls.

READ MORE: Turning the page for feminism

For those women who want to pursue an education but cannot afford it without a scholarship, sports colleges sometimes provide one of the only options.

“I wanted to be a lawyer, but the only way to get scholarships to study were through sports colleges,” Sangwan explains. 

Haryana has a long sporting tradition. In the 2010 Commonwealth Games, 22 of the 38 Indian medallists were from the state.

Of the 25 athletes who passed the physical trial for her college in Haryana, Sangwan was the only woman. When the college principal called her to suggest that she might be uncomfortable as the only female, Sangwan refused to drop out.

And what was to follow, she says, was a lesson in sexism and moral policing.

She remembers one incident when her coach found her talking to a male colleague at a training camp. “My coach asked me with whose permission I was talking to the boy,” she says. “Instead of feeling guilty, which he wanted me to, I told him that I do not need anyone’s permission to talk to a fellow player; there is nothing wrong with it. He was offended and warned me ‘Don’t be a leader’.”

For next training camp, Sangwan was dropped from the list of participants. 

Small acts of rebellion marked her next few years in the college.

In a society where shorts and T-shirts were not widely considered sufficiently modest for women, female athletes often found themselves facing unwanted attention.


“The viewers passed such lewd comments on our bodies that many families withdrew their daughters from the game,” she recalls.

But Sangwan continued to play, participating in international tournaments even as her state team fell apart. As one team-mate after another married, they each found themselves consigned to housework by their families.

“You should see those women now,” Sangwan says. “They made such fantastic vertical jumps in the game, and now, [they are] not even allowed to step out of their houses.” 

Reaching for the moon

When Sangwan met Inderjit Singh, a young student leader from the Students’ Federation of India, during a protest against the different curfews for male and female students staying in student accommodation, it was the beginning of not just an ideological camaraderie, but a life partnership.

“While my family was always proud and supportive of my sports career, choosing one’s own partner was more than transgression,” she says. “It was betrayal and dishonour.”

For six months, she was unable to visit her home village after the clan council there threatened her with physical violence. 

In the past two decades, there have been instances of clan councils ruling that couples should be killed by being tied to trees and run over with tractors, by being chopped to pieces, thrown in irrigation canals or publicly lynched.

In 2004, one clan council in Ballabhgarh, an area bordering Delhi, decreed that families with fewer than two sons were not eligible to approach the council over property disputes, as such “unfortunate” families were less likely to see the father’s name carried on or to increase the family’s assets. The result was an even greater discrepancy in the female to male ratio, from 683 women for every 1,000 men in 2004, to just 370 women for every 1,000 men in 2008.

When confronted with such obstacles, organising women – many of whom may be unable to freely leave their homes – can seem no less than a Herculean task. But it is one Sangwan has taken on.
“We made use of the literary programme launched by the government initially to engage with women,” she says. “Also, thankfully, cultural activities are always considered a female domain. When women step out to participate in folk arts, not many patriarchs are suspicious. We made use of theatre and cultural groups to make women aware about their agencies, their rights.” 

After the first decade, her collective, Janwadi Mahila Samiti, had more than 40,000 members – much to the dislike of the clan councils.

On several occasions, members have been publicly shamed, thrown out of their houses naked by their husbands in the middle of the night, and on one occasion, “the husband of a woman committed suicide from not being able to stop her from attending the organisation meeting”.

“Such occasions of intimidation have long-lasting impacts on the movement. One has to keep going back to scratch and keep building it all over again,” she says.

Don't get us the moon, let us get it ourselves

by Jagmati Sangwan

The councils also wield a lot of influence over party politics, often controlling who members of their community vote for. This often guarantees them some degree of impunity.

Haryana got its first non-Jat chief minister, Manohar Lal Khattar, last year. But when asked about the clan councils during his election campaign, he said that girls must not “lure” boys and must wear decent clothes so as not to attract the opposite sex.

“People often perceive the Khap Panchayats as a group of barbarians sitting in the back of beyond, indulging in these horrific, medieval practices, ” says Sangwan. “But actually, they represent a larger, rigid social order which delves on economic interests that nobody wants challenged.” 

In 1989, Devi Lal, a former chief minister of Haryana and then-deputy prime minister of India, proposed an amendment to the Hindu Succession Act so that married women would no longer have any claim to a share of their ancestral property.

Feminists across the country, including Sangwan, launched an aggressive campaign against the proposal, which was finally dropped. “It is land that commands policies and politics in this region. With women having [an] equal share in their ancestral property, each time there is an inter-caste or inter-religious wedding, the community’s exclusive right over the land is diluted,” she explains.

According to a study commissioned by The National Commission for Women, 72 percent of clan-dictated “honour” killings are related to inter-caste marriages.
In April 2014, four Dalit girls were gang-raped by members of the Jat community in Bhagana village of Hisar. It was an act that was allegedly intended to teach the Dalit community, who worked as agricultural labourers on the farms of the Jats, a lesson, after they demanded fair access to government land. It is the same social influence that is sometimes used to intimidate Dalit rape survivors into withdrawing their cases against Jat rapists by sanctioning the socioeconomic boycott of Dalits, forcing them out of employment as farm labourers.

Sangwan does not consider herself to be a theorist, but she does subscribe to the ‘theory of intersectionality’ – the term used to describe interconnected forms of discrimination based on class, caste, religion and so on.

“[After the Delhi gang rape], there has been more focus on addressing issues of gender violence, but I do regret that there has been [a] lack of effort to pin down the dangerous ideologies that capitalise on the hierarchies and are [the] root cause [of] the violence,” she says.

Sangwan believes that inequality based on gender, caste, class, age and religion “needs to be fought against collectively”.

Why, she asks, is the country’s Right to Food Bill, which is intended to provide food and nutritional security to all citizens, and the Land Ordinance Bill, which exempts projects relating to power, infrastructure and defence from having to seek the consent of farmers in order to acquire their land, not a part of the women’s movement?

I remember so many rural women from my family – grandmother, aunts – who had early deaths because of the back-breaking work and the lack of nutrition compared to the men who outlived them. Only if you can survive can you aspire for freedom and equality.”

It is this conviction that leads her to brave police batons, water cannon and arrest in order to show solidarity with striking workers, to oppose religious polarisation, and to fight caste-based violence.

These days, she is busy campaigning for a bill to prevent “honour” killings. At least 27 Indian states and territories have given their support to the proposal, which would make even intimidating a couple or their families an offence punishable by imprisonment and a fine. But the government has refused to fix a timeline for putting a legal framework in place for it, saying only that a decision will be taken once it has consulted with all necessary parties.

The progress of the bill is an achievement, but there is a long way to go. In order to get there, Sangwan believes women must be the drivers of the change.

“Don’t get us the moon,” she says, “Let us get it ourselves.”

Source: Al Jazeera